Crooked, Iffy: Tom Prime’s Male Pregnancy In Reverse

Male Pregnancy in Reverse
Tom Prime
New Star Books
2023, 64 pp., $18.00

“planted / in the crook of / if” 
“you shouldn’t speak / fast-setting cement / frantic as a hand / in patulous webs” 
“like an interplanetary mining device needs a heavy-metals asteroid to exploit, 
for its existence to have purpose, the great 
regulator of the productive 
patriarchy or the family requires its own 
unique milke white lambe mendicant” 

In his 2023 full-length title, Male Pregnancy in Reverse (New Star Books), Tom Prime seems to be inventing schizo-savvy word fields to extort, jam heterogenous Englishes into, and drill through (think trepanning) to startle, thwart, and baffle.

Immediate associations to the book’s title and constitutive elements might align us with extremely online considerations of MPreg (plot device of cisgender men being pregnant through magical or supernatural means), or Cum Metal (especially emotional articulations in industrial, metal, rock, etcetera), or any other number of outer limit cognito-hazard invocations that come from an exaggerated, extreme accelerationist push toward icky loud crushing futurehell post-language supersoup.

But Prime does not push into the noisome realm of the expedient net experiment at all really; rather, Male Pregnancy in Reverse rightly necessitates the turning inside out of that "avant garde" blurber Daniel Y. Harris identifies Prime’s work within; Prime’s way forward is backward.

The linguistic terrain herein reflects at least partly his academic focuses, a “rich and suggestive vocabulary largely drawn from Elizabethan literary texts,” and the elusive linguilateral moves of Mallarme and other French Symbolists. Many occasions for me to frequent the dictionary to decode what is archaism, what is play and nonce. Male Pregnancy in Reverse alienates perhaps as often as it defamiliarizes, with titles like “Blunged” (blend and plunge, as in claymaking, 19th century usage) page-opposite “Olanzapinecide” (Olanzapine, a treatment for schizophrenia, turned deathly with the killing suffix), both utterly Prime-al until I unpack them, go Google-ogling.

Male Pregnancy in Reverse rightly necessitates the turning inside out of that ‘avant garde’ blurber Daniel Y. Harris identifies Prime’s work within; Prime’s way forward is backward.

I struggled to retain much of this language, and find it tedious in its most extreme deployments, but Prime offers little antipsychotic poetries to us throughout, user-friendly and sentimental. Sometimes these peaceful moments happen in an aside, as in the close of “Olanzapinecide”: “and handful a choke / of pills (the Wrath of Khan / clown-skin. I whimper a tin gun.” 

Prime offers somewhat standard poetic play here, a handful becomes a choke, a coined term of venery for pills, but also the threat of choking, overdosing, you know, wordplay, spilling into an italicized opening parenthesis; Khan, a grounding pop-culture reference; clown’s skin, a lingua jester invocation, or misheard/misread deliberately, kin to clowns; and finally the speaker whimpers its tin gun, as opposed to a tin ear (tone deaf), or a weapon that might safely fire; a child’s toy, maybe—an impish promise of violence that hovers throughout the five acts of the the poem, consummated most clearly in “Baby’s Masque.”

Dense? Difficult? Ish, to both. But all those constituent elements come together, even if in a spill in an unfinished parenthetical aside.

And look at “Student Housing—For Amelia.” Moments of soft attention, asking “what did you eat yesterday?” Sharing “I am reading Milton … and think to turn on the AC. you have left,” speaker waiting for “when you get home,” when “moonlight snake- / grasses the marrow-stuffed curtilage.” A domestic accounting of shared space, comforts or luxuries like reading and air conditioning, and a functional periodicity (an era in which one lives in student housing).

The difficult-most, obscure, and catastrophically tangled moments of schizo-filum are not any more or less satisfying or rewarding than these accessible beats of peace, but feel aptly engineered to reiterate the traceable orbit our reading mind should follow to get through the titanically difficult text (picture a wizard’s IOUN stone, or several of them at once, haloing your head, and accept that they won’t always be in your line of sight).

“‘orbiting where the snuff film was / supposed to be’” 

“Baby’s Masque” is certainly the most nightmarish stretch of Male Pregnancy in Reverse, almost antithetical to Prime’s innate critique of the titular misogynist concept:

“After harrowing a cavern into its mother’s uterus with its tapewormy fingers, it gurgles around inside. The baby transmutes into a grizzled octogenarian … The baby pulls out its bicuspids and plants them into Mother’s spilt womb.”

Mother and child find one another in an undying, dismembering, transmutative brawl, fishhooks hanging from the ceiling fan in a shiny slashing orbit like that I invoke above. This passage made me physically ill, and I took several days to figure out just how to interface with these highly volatile elements. This entire stretch of Prime’s poem is not for the mawkish or faint of heart.

“Baby’s Masque” is one of the most transparently intertextual organs of the five-act tragedy. Footnotes detail Mother is in reference to book two of Paradise Lost (Satan births Sin in his time as an angel; produces a child of incest with her, Death; Death rapes Sin as well). Titivillus, the demon supposedly in charge of all those pesky typos I’ve had to meticulously cauterize from this review, also features. Reading here, you begin to sense the masque as a mondegreen, malapropist take on Milton, that Prime himself plays Titivillus on a huge certain slab of Elizabethan language in particular.

“Baby wants to climb back into the womb. Paws with each hand at the parallel sides of Mother’s cavity, forces the skin apart. The discerption is achingly slow and as the skin rips, Baby’s mother howls.”

Like me, you may have misread discerption (pulling apart) above as description (the two share the exact same letter set, and you are unlikely to have read the former as often as the latter), or the spilt womb as split (hard to say which one is worse). The descriptions of violence are a durational feat, are achingly slow and thorough (and, I think cousin, to more extremist works, like Christopher Norris’s “Hunchback ‘88”).

What I mean by durational is Prime’s garbled poetics force a roadblock to ensure you catch meaning, the meaning connoted at a glance and the meaning as it actually is. This ask for layered, fixated reading offers us a rare experience in a poetry culture that presently champions didactic, tidy, polished work; Prime pushes for a less assimilable poetics than business as usual; Prime’s felt poetic thrust demands a lived-in, thought through reading, feelings and scenes that move in many directions at once, so jagged as to de-ossify the historical ossification of the language at-hand.

The masque carries electric current, sparks and keeps you from touching it; you’re on the other side of the electric fence watching eerie washed out reflections of familiar (to the English or Classics majors, at least) foundational figures. You’re watching the typographical errors cascade into hell, into something no less frustrating, or disgusting, than what we read in Paradise Lost. Square peg round hole, but the peg is a linguistic pipe-bomb and the round hole is a greedy garburator.

Prime’s felt poetic thrust demands a lived-in, thought through reading, feelings and scenes that move in many directions at once, so jagged as to de-ossify the historical ossification of the language at-hand.

The official speakers are many (listed in the Actus Primus page six, and Daniel Y. Harris’s really incredible blurb bookback), and I think, paratextual gestures more than true tint, tone, or filter. They are perhaps best understood in the conceptual sense: thinkable/talkable/observable/though not penetrable—spotlights that put hard light on more apt, in-text invocations of the voice-work at play:

“stuffs a rolled-up 1954 Playboy down / my throat. ‘is resentment pharmaceutical, empty / inns orphaned in lip-sync shadow?’” 
“The baby is crying through a mechanical voice box attached to its throat,” referred to later as the “electrolarynx” 
[Quoting Anna Trapnel] “ ... which family consisted of many persons, before whom I thought my self unfit to speak, when I was in an ordinary capacity” 

Rarely, if ever, is Prime’s delivery not suspect of bad-dub / no-notice-prompter lip-sync; not filtered through a baby’s borged but archaic electrolarynx; not buzzing harsh through the kazoo-like reed of a mid-century Playboy wedged in the throat.

While Prime is so meticulously composing these unlikely blasts of not high and low but rather out-there and way-the-fuck-back-when, Prime’s subject matter detailing homelessness, altered states, and what makes writing writing always pushes beyond an "ordinary capacity," always from speakers busybodies might judge "unfit to speak" (but thankfully, spake they did).

And not just speech speech, but textual mischief too, traces of the act of reading, almost k-hole spiraling visual work:

Busy, infested-feeling VizPo of hyperlink, wiki-wander meanderthalean chop up collages that read so so so sprawling; feeling of an unraveling, incessantly edited infinite smeared newsprint (I suppose what I’m describing is internet, but this is so much more tactile), an architecture of obsessions and creases, revisions, collisions, adopting in last iteration the motion of a castle’s toppled bailey, broke finally under the termite siege of scissor, cursive, fluorescing textbook, ever-threatening red revisions penmarking.

Of those books I took on in 2023, Male Pregnancy In Reverse is certainly the most difficult book I read—or attempted to read. It does not overstay its welcome at a brisk 64 pages, is buoyed by really really sharp and appropriate cover design (and perfectly priming blurbs), and as argued above, is generous enough with c(l)ues on how to wrassle with itself in-text that no proficient poetry reader should find themselves totally lost at sea, whether the sea is the annexed pulp-gored Sin Mother’s womb, or the quicksilver, “pataseminal” stream of misogynists Englishes, “methy fuck energy,” or those parcels brought by our loyal homonculi, bowls of “Frankenberried milk,” franken-language buried in the wet mud of English drawn and quartered across literal centuries.

We might even argue the poem struggles with itself, as in its final piece, “After a plangent lacuna,” the very ends of the lines collide with the page’s gutter, break up and down to stay within the confines of the page, insist last-second errata or extra possibility, to tag both “‘me or I, must jism’” and “‘and you have’” with the falling “‘arms of celery'” to get every possible anxious, inchoate thought out ... It’s all messy, croaky business, a sign of vital poetry.

Male Pregnancy … is available to all of us, those within and without the binary, a little horrible toy sat out to grasp as one might Hellraiser’s Lament Configurations; just sitting there, waiting to be dashed against some hard surface in frustration, “‘palpable as a molting sea.’”